Down 3-0 in the second inning and without head coach Stuart Chester, the Canes were within a few innings of elimination.
However, for the second time in the last two series, Cartersville came back from an early deficit in a deciding Game 3 and went on to beat Buford 7-5 Tuesday night to advance to the state championship series.
“Unbelievable. Unbelievable. I don’t know how to describe it,” Chester said of his feelings after the game. “[Buford’s] the best team we’ve played, but you can’t beat character and class. We have two players that have signed and we’re facing Division I’s here and Division I’s there. Our guys don’t care. They’re different because of what they have across their chest.”
The win was Chester’s 500th of his career, although he was unable to coach after he was ejected during Monday’s Game 2.
“It was driving me crazy,” Chester said of having to sit on the bus while his team played Game 3. “Not for me, but for the kids and how much they deserve to go out on top.”
Chester has one more game to sit out before he will be permitted to return during Game 2 of the state championship series, which will begin Saturday at Richard Bell Field against Blessed Trinity. Game 1 begins at 3 p.m.
Against Buford, Kyle Tucker took over third base coaching duties while David Cagle coached first base and handled the pitching staff.
After the game, Tucker said he was not concerned about the 3-0 deficit.
“It’s easy to say now, but we knew it was a seven-inning game and we just wanted to battle,” Tucker said. “If you go back to the last round against Callaway, we got down 2-0 [in Game 3] and battled back. That’s what the guys were saying in the dugout, ‘Remember Callaway.’ I think we drew off that.”
Buford got the early advantage by scoring two runs in the first inning and another in the second.
Jack Mayo got the start and pitched one inning after throwing two scoreless innings in Game 1 of the series. Mayo began the second inning and allowed a leadoff double. Lane Wilson then entered the game. The first batter Wilson faced reached on an error, moving the lead runner to third. Wilson then recorded three consecutive outs, but one unearned run came home and Buford had a 3-0 lead.
It was then that Cartersville would mount its rally in the bottom of the second inning. Cameron Neal led off with a walk. He reached base twice in the game and reached in seven of his 11 plate appearances in the series.
As is often the case, the leadoff walk led to trouble and the mistake was compounded by an error, putting runners on first and third with no outs.
David Darnell would drive in the first run with an RBI groundout. Garrett Rutledge then was hit by a pitch and Mark Quattlebaum singled to load the bases.
Wilson popped out to deep right to score Cartersville’s second run and Clifton Dempsey walked to reload the bases. That set the stage for Brent Arnold who, with two outs, hit a sinking liner to center field that was just out of the reach of a diving center fielder. The ball rolled to the wall, allowing the bases to clear and Arnold to go to third base and give the Canes a 5-3 lead.
“Brent’s triple was huge,” Tucker said. “Jack Mayo was also huge today. He ate up two innings yesterday and another inning today. He kept us in the game and that’s all we asked him to do.”
The momentum swung to Cartersville’s side after the five-run second inning and it continued into the top of the third inning on defense. Dempsey recorded the first out when he ranged to his right, backhanded a groundball in the hole and fired all the way across the diamond for the out.
“I had good hops and good reads on the ball today,” Dempsey said.
The next batter for Buford was cleanup hitter Austin Upshaw. Upshaw launched a high and deep flyball to center field. Cartersville center fielder Riley Richards ranged back to the wall, timed his jump and reached over the short outfield fence to rob a home run from Upshaw.
“I was really relying on my defense more than anything,” Wilson said of his performance on the mound. “Our defense is playing well right now. Riley had a good catch, Clifton had a great play. Everybody’s playing well.”
Offensively, Cartersville added to its lead in the third inning when Quattlebaum delivered a two-out, two-strike single to score Richards from third base. Quattlebaum went 3-for-3 with a double, run scored and an RBI after going 1-for-6 with five strikeouts in the first two games Monday.
“Coach always says, ‘You can’t let things snowball and let it affect you at the plate or in the field,” Quattlebaum said. “Coach Montgomery was just telling me, ‘You’re going to do something big tomorrow.’ I just took that advice.”
Quattlebaum’s RBI was important because Buford would score two runs the next inning to draw within one run. The runs came off the bat of Austin Wilhite, who hit a two-run home run off of Wilson.
Besides the home run, Wilson did not allow another run in five innings of work. He has now pitched 10 2/3 innings out of the bullpen in the last two series and has given up just the two earned runs.
“We gave Lane the ball in Game 1 of the playoffs and he battled the best pitcher in the state. Then he got two saves the last series and a win today,” Tucker said of Wilson. “He just battles. He doesn’t throw the hardest. He probably doesn’t have the best stuff, but he just works.”
Cartersville would tack on another run in the fifth when Wilson drove in a run on his second sacrifice fly of the game to score Rutledge, who advanced to third after a double by Quattlebaum.
Rutledge then came on to pitch the final inning for the save, despite throwing nearly 90 pitches in a complete-game win in Game 2 Monday.
“He’s a competitor. He wants to throw every inning,” Cagle, Cartersville’s pitching coach said of Rutledge. “If we were going to get beat in the seventh inning, it was going to be with our best.”
Rutledge struck out two in the final inning to secure the victory and send Cartersville to the state championship series.
“We won but it’s also nice because coach Chester gets to come back and coach the championship series,” Quattlebaum said. “I think we are going to do big things and surprise a lot of people. Nobody really thought we had a chance after losing 14 seniors.”